NASA spending: Round three

It seems I cannot go a week without hearing one person or another argue against investment in NASA and space exploration as a whole. Whether they are waxing eloquent over the need to fix problems on Earth before looking out to the starts or complaining about a massive waste of resources, they are unified in opposition to a driving force for scientific innovation. This is not to say there are no problems that need accounting on Earth, no economies to fix or conflicts to be resolved.  There are so many crises being faced by our planet right now it’s enough to make my head spin. Poverty, disease, environmental, energy… it’s frankly depressing to consider them all.

But what exactly is being wasted by funding NASA research and space exploration? Intelligence? People go into those fields because of passion and a belief in the mission, and would probably continue to do so even if their meager funding was redirected. It is no waste of intelligence to devote oneself to a field of interest. Intelligence aside, perhaps it is a waste of efficiency? This is one of the more popular arguments at the moment, an understandable belief considering the recent success of many private companies as well as the relative speed at which they developed. Certainly, they may prove a better course for local space travel and research, but this argument does not take risk into account. With one or two exceptions, the only goal of these companies is profit, and because of the massive risk private companies will never reach beyond low earth orbit, and possibly the moon. Privatization of near space is not a problem, but it is NASA that pushes the frontier.

This leaves us with the go-to reason for cutting funding for NASA and space exploration: it costs money that could be better spent on the aforementioned crises. Here’s the problem. Do you know how much of the federal budget is spent outside this planet? It’s between four and six tenths of one percent, yet much like foreign aid, the common perception lies more in the range of five to fifteen percent. This half penny of the federal dollar has spurred countless advancements in dozens of fields that we now take for granted, and many more of which we cannot even conceive. Long range telecommunications? Check. Useful hearing aids? Check. Magnetic resonance imaging? Check. Oh, and you can also thank them for modern water filters, laser eye surgery and those anti-corrosion materials that keep our bridges from falling down.

There is a whole laundry list of important technologies inspired or developed by NASA research in preparation for space exploration, but these concrete considerations pale in comparison to the educational and societal benefit best explained by Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Director of the Hayden Planetarium. There is no greater force of nature than NASA in stoking a pipeline of interested students who one day want to become scientists and engineers. Cliche it may be, it is the grand vision they provide that has stimulated an entire nation to strive for a better tomorrow, to discover new technologies and findings that transform life as we know it. A price tag may be attached to that, but it is worth more than half a percent.